Lab Matters Fall 2016 - Page 32

member spotlight Supporting Farms, Families and the Environment in Ventura County by Nancy Maddox, MPH, writer A sk Denise Von Bargen what’s great about Ventura County, California, and she will tell you without skipping a beat, “We have the best climate in the world.” With year-round sunshine, ocean breezes and daytime temps that seldom stray from the 60s and 70s, few would argue with this assessment. Named after the county seat of San Buenaventura, the jurisdiction lies along the Pacific Coast, nestled between Los Angeles (LA) County and Santa Barbara County, from which it separated in 1873. Von Bargen, who heads the Ventura County Public Health Laboratory, said the jurisdiction’s 42 miles of Pacific coastline and off-shore Channel Islands include stunning beaches, which her staff visit on a routine basis; the laboratory tests ocean water quality at 40 sites/ week during “summer” months and 20 sites/week from November to March. The county’s abundant wildlife—about half its 2,200 square miles is national forestland—also generates work for the laboratory. Rabies is endemic here, and the laboratory has tested everything from foxes to skunks to bats. Another large swath of Ventura County, about a quarter of its land area, is farmland, mostly devoted to the cultivation of lemons, avocados and strawberries. Out of a population of about 850,000 residents, roughly 50,000 are farmworkers and their families. In addition, about 20,000 migrant farmworkers reside here for part of the year, sometimes importing diseases like tuberculosis, for which the laboratory also tests. “TB is an important issue,” said Von Bargen. “The wage for farmhands averages about $7.00 an hour, so there is not good access to healthcare.” At the other end of the employment spectrum, the county is home to Amgen, a multinational company that manufactures biologics—genetically-engineered vaccines and drug therapies. Other large employers include the local government, two US Navy bases, an Air National Guard base and California State University–Channel Islands, the newest of the 23 campuses in the California state university system. By virtue of its scenic location and proximity to the Hollywood film industry, the campus has served as a backdrop for music videos and scenes from several movies, including The Ring and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Of note, Port Hueneme—the only deep water port between LA and San Francisco—lies about midway along the Ventura County coast, and is the entry point for assorted goods, including a lot of cars and bananas. Facility In 2005, the public health laboratory—along with all the central offices of the Ventura County Health Care Agency—moved into a brand new facility in Oxnard, the county’s most populous city, situated about 30 miles west of LA city limits. The two-story building features a stucco façade and red Spanish roof tiles and overlooks strawberry fields and medical office buildings, just off California’s famed coastal highway, US Route 101. The 5,000-square-foot laboratory boasts two BSL-3 suites. It shares the ground floor with the Office of Vital Records and three public health clinics. Upstairs offices house administrative staff, including county epidemiologists. Although Von Bargen said the laboratory is “really easy to get to,” its 20 mile distance from the Ventura County Medical Center necessitates the use of a courier service for specimen transport between the two. Director Von Bargen was raised in a military family and had an international childhood. She said, “I spent some of my early years in Ethiopia and later years in Bangkok and Laos. My dad retired in Bangkok, and when I was in my last year of high school we returned to Santa Rosa, California, my mother’s hometown.” After high school, she worked as a lab assistant at Scripps Memorial Hospital while earning a BS degree in microbiology from San Diego State University. Although Von Bargen had planned to become a “med tech,” she said, “Someone at Scripps was going into public health and I became very interested in that field.” 30 LAB MATTERS Fall 2016 Ventura County Public Health Laboratory Staff. Back r ow (l to r): Salvador Barragan, Sherri Hurd, Cameron Chandler. Front row (l to r): Carol Hannah, Lauren Stead, MS, Nadia Van Buren, Michael Soto, Syreeta Steele, PhD To qualify for a state microbiologist license, she did a six-month stint at the bench in the San Diego Public Health Laboratory and was hooked. Immediately thereafter, she accepted a position at the Ventura County Public Health Laboratory. Then her career took an unexpected turn: “I got married, had three kids and moved to the East Coast for my husband’s job.” For the next decade or so, Von Bargen worked part time in various positions, including teaching microbiology to Immaculata University nursing students, working for a pharmaceutical company and doing clinical hospital work. When the family returned to California, she took a job doing sales support for AmGen and was based on-site at Life Technologies (now Thermo Fisher Scientific). Von Bargen said, “When my last child went to college, someone I still knew [at the Ventura County laboratory] told me someone was retiring and there was an open microbiology position there.” Thus, in 2007, she returned to the place her career began. In May 2015, Von Bargen advanced to laboratory director. Since water is such a critical issue in this droughtstricken state, laboratory data were crucial to inform state water policy. Staff The laboratory, now fully staffed, employs five microbiologists, three support staff and Von Bargen. Revenue The yearly laboratory budget is about $1.8 million, virtually all coming from county general funds. Testing Testing for sexually transmitted infections—primarily HIV and chlamydia/ gonorrhea—is the laboratory’s highest volume service. Other clinical tests include the QuantiFERON-TB Gold test, the Salmonella PCR, measles PCR, norovirus PCR and CDC’s new Trioplex real-time RT-PCR assay for dengue, Zika and Chikungunya viruses. The laboratory performs serum titers for rubeola and varicella for new county employees and also tests about 10-15 animals/ week for rabies (with about 5 to 7 positives/year). Its only non-clinical work is recreational beach water testing. Virtually all of the laboratory’s services are performed on behalf of other county programs, including over 40 ambulatory clinics located throughout the jurisdiction. PublicHealthLabs @APHL APHL.org